As we draw so close to the feast we wait to celebrate, we listen to the account of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to tell a young woman that God chooses her for a great mission.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
For many of us, this is a very familiar Gospel reading. The angel greets Mary with words that have become prayer:
“Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
and then he tells her what God wills for her:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
This is good, good news of course. We hear who he is, who he belongs to, and what he will do. But why is it important for us to listen to this account?
The first words of Mary that St. Luke records might interest us.
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Mary knows that the angel says the impossible. She has not had sexual relations with a man. It is impossible for there to be life within her. How can there be life when life is impossible?
The angel's answer might interest us, too. First he tells her that God will act:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
And then he tells her:
“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.
Elizabeth has never been able to have children. She and her husband Zechariah would have tried every remedy available, but still, no children. After a certain time, a woman's body gets too old to have children. Her body no longer produces the egg cells from which babies grow. Elizabeth and Zechariah accepted that they could not have children, and grew old.
And yet, the angel Gabriel announces that in her old age, Elizabeth is pregnant! She has been pregnant for 6 months—this baby is coming! Life should have been impossible—it was impossible—and yet there is life. (And what a life! This is John-the-Baptist we are talking about!)
Life when life seems impossible.
For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Life when there is no father, life when a woman is too old—these are impossible circumstances. And yet there is life with God.
What does this mean?
Does this mean God throws power around willy-nilly? Is this magic? No. That word "with" is so important. With God. Together with God, there can be life. God-with-us.
Life under impossible circumstances is who this baby is: he is Immanuel, God-with-us.
Life under impossible circumstances is who he belongs to: God, who is life, and us, who face impossible circumstances all the time.
Life under impossible circumstances is what he will do: he will rise again on the third day. Out of death, the most impossible circumstance, comes life.
What does this mean for us who try to do what is right, who try to do the will of God?
We do not get messengers sent from God, do we? We do not have angels telling us what God wills for us. Maybe Mary has it easy.
But we have to think that Mary prays—that she is a person of prayer—or she would not realize that Gabriel is an angel. Maybe she would have just seen a scraggly old stranger. Maybe she would not have stopped what she was doing to listen. She must be a person of prayer, a person used to listening in order to hear the message of God. We must have to be people of prayer, too, so that we can hear the message God has for us, so that we can know the will of God.
And when life seems impossible, if we pray, if we walk with God, if we work with God—not trying to change God's will, but choosing the will of God—nothing will be impossible. There will be life under impossible circumstances, beyond our imagining.